photo of Norwegian fjord

The Gifts of Anger

Photo of angry-looking puppy

One of my friends asked me, “Why are you writing a book about the emotions? I hate emotions! They ruin everything! They’re the worst!” I think she thought I would disagree, but she’s right! In many people’s hands, emotions can be some of the ugliest things you’ll ever see.

Sometimes, I’ll see someone using anger or shame to tear someone apart, and I’ll think, “Hey, give me those emotions! That’s perfectly good energy you’re throwing away! You don’t use anger to tear people apart! Anger is about protection and honorable boundaries! What in the hell are you doing with it? You’re ruining it for everybody!”

We’ve all been on the wrong end of someone’s anger, and we’ve all used anger as a bludgeon or sarcasm as a stiletto. In fact, when most of us think of anger, we see a red-faced bull or something like it (I’m hoping this puppy will become the new anger mascot!).

But here’s something interesting: People can also have a great deal of trouble in their lives if they don’t have enough anger. For instance, do any of these questions ring true?

I often agree to do things I really don’t want to do
I often feel disrespected at work or in my relationships
I often have trouble speaking up for myself
I tend to isolate myself from others because I’m so sensitive
I sometimes think I take care of others better than I take care of myself

I think most of us have experienced these issues, and perhaps we’ve thought of ourselves as pushovers, weaklings, or too sensitive, but what we really are in these situations is anger-impaired. Anger contains a great deal of focused, protective energy, and when we don’t have enough of it, we struggle to set boundaries and protect ourselves in relationships. Without our healthy anger, we can lose our vitality and our capacity to react and respond in resilient ways.

But when we’re using too much anger, we’ve got so much energy that we’re like loose cannons with revolving knife attachments that breathe fire. With too much anger, we set rigid boundaries and protect ourselves so fiercely that we make everyone’s lives miserable, including our own.

Here’s how I learned about the gifts of anger. As a fiery, intense little trauma survivor, I used anger throughout my childhood, primarily to keep people the hell away from me. My abuser was a very intense, rage-filled alcoholic who would careen between rage, manipulation, and weeping fits. Nice. In this cauldron of deeply disturbed emotional volatility, I got to see how his emotions worked and didn’t work, and I got to see a continual fireworks display of badly managed behavior.

My molester was not in my family, so I also got to see my parents and siblings deal with their own emotions. We’ve got a lot of smarts in our family, but we also have the all-too-common lack of emotional agility and awareness. So there was a lot of repressed emotion in my house. The arched eye. The unspoken words. The sarcasm that told the truth in passive-aggressive ways. The simmering undercurrent that was never brought out into the open. You know, a regular American family!

But the juxtapositions were so instructive for me, especially where anger was concerned. Too much, and you’re a danger to everyone. Too little, and you were endangered by everyone. So I worked to find the middle path between too much anger and not enough, and I found the gifts of anger!

The Gifts of Anger: The Honorable Sentry
Proper Boundaries ~ Honor ~ Conviction ~ Healthy Detachment ~ Protection for All

If I were to personify anger, I would describe it as a mix between a stalwart castle sentry and an ancient sage. Anger sets your boundaries by walking the perimeter of your soul and keeping an eye on you, the people around you, and your environment. If your boundaries are broken (through the insensitivity of others, or in any other way), anger comes forward to restore your sense of strength and separateness. The questions for anger are: What do I value? and What must be protected and restored? Both protection and restoration can occur quickly when you ask these questions. This gives you something immediate and honorable to do with your anger, and with its help, you can easily reset your boundaries and restore your sense of self. All by itself, this simple movement will address your anger and circumvent any need for internal or external violence – because you’ll be making the proper movement in response to your anger. This movement will allow you to speak and act from a position of strength, rather than from brutality or passivity, which is where so many people tend to go with their anger.

If you tend to repress your anger, you’ll be unable to restore your boundaries because you won’t have the strength and focus you need to protect yourself; therefore, further damage will inevitably follow the initial affront. Your anger exists to protect you honorably. If you repress it and refuse to respond to an insult or affront, it is as if your castle sentry is inviting attacks and letting people get away with vandalism.

However, if you choose to dishonorably express your anger at a person who offends against you, you will be dangerously unguarded – just as you would be if your castle sentry left his post and went out on a rampage. When your anger is used as a weapon and your territory is left without a sentry, your psyche will have to pour more anger into the situation. If you habitually express your anger, you’ll end up expressing this new infusion of anger as well, and you’ll break your boundaries (and the boundaries of others) even further. This is how escalating rages and furies get started – the problem doesn’t come from the essential energy of anger, but from the unskilled and dishonorable use of anger when it arises.

When your healthy anger flows freely, you won’t even know it’s there – it will simply help you maintain your boundaries, your inner convictions, and your healthy detachment. Free-flowing anger will allow you to laugh compassionately at yourself and set your boundaries mercifully – because both actions arise from the inner strength and honorable self-definition anger brings you. When your anger is not allowed its natural flow, you’ll have trouble setting and maintaining your boundaries, you’ll tend to dishonor or enmesh with others, and your self-image will be imperiled by your reliance on the capricious opinions of the outside world.

The new Language of Emotions book coverHealthy anger sets your boundaries and helps you engage more effectively because it allows you to relate authentically and respectfully. When you have an awakened connection to your anger and a clear sense of your own boundaries, you’ll be able to honor boundaries and individuality in others; therefore, your relationships won’t be based on power struggles, projections, or enmeshment. However, if you don’t have access to your vital, boundary-defining anger, you‘ll be undifferentiated, certainly – but you’ll also be dangerous to the people around you. If you repress your anger, you’ll endanger others by creating passive and poorly defined boundaries that will lead you to enmesh yourself in their lives. And if you dishonorably express your anger, you’ll create imposing, fear-inducing boundaries that will degrade the stability of everyone around you. When you can instead channel this noble emotion properly, you’ll be able to maintain your boundaries – and protect the boundaries of others – with honor.

There is a saying from the Bassa tribe in West Africa: “If you are never angry, then you are unborn.”

It’s interesting how often we have to go outside of our culture to find positive words about anger!

7 Responses

  1. graham
    | Reply

    I’m slowly working my way through all the posts on your website, and this one on the gifts of anger is up there with the very best of them.
    I say that, of course, because I completely identify with what you’re saying. I’ve had plenty of anger down through the years, but generally I’ve never known how to express it healthily; always with the worry that if I get really angry I’ll turn into the Incredible Hulk – except for going green; I don’t think that’ll happen- so I’ve been either bottling it up or splitting timber with all the fury I could muster!.
    When I worked as a psychotherapist of sorts I would tell clients that they needed their anger, for much the same reasons you say, but I found it impossible to really believe that about myself. Now, when finally someone tells ME what I was telling others, I finally get it.
    You have a brilliant way of getting the message across. You are a blessing and a star! Thanks.

  2. SocraticGadfly
    | Reply

    Karla, thanks for sharing your life experiences. I reacted just the opposite. Afraid of anger because of emotional and occasional physical abuse from my dad, and with a molester-abuser also at home and all the emotions that brought up, I am just learning, years later, how to really deal with my anger in any way other than totally internalizing it.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Oh, I’m sorry to hear about the abuse you experienced. It’s not fair. And your situation of anger impairment is very common in children of emotional abusers. In my book, I talk about people who lead with sadness or other emotions rather than anger, because the anger they saw in childhood was too awful. I call it a swashbuckling move — turning away from anger — not a weak one.

      I’m glad you’re working with your anger again. It’s an awesome and necessary emotion, even though many people are absolutely appallingly bad with their own angers.

  3. Keep on Keepin on
    | Reply

    I certainly emphasize with what you said, about emotions. After finding out about my ex boyfriend’s dangerous habits, I ended the relationship, wished him much love and asked for no contact. The month previous to the breakup I had encountered several moments where I thought my heart was going to explode. At the time,I had no idea why I had these episodes, and my counselor even suggested, I should keep on with the relationship, as it may be just the ups and downs of a couple. I realize now my heart was telling me to be careful, and that I was in a dangerous situation. A friend asked me why I wasn`t angry. He had expected me to demonize my ex and express anger in the traditional fashion. I felt by ending the relationship I expressed all the anger my ex needed to see. Anything more than that was a misuse of my energy, which I need to move on. As I looked at the moon on the night of our breakup, I felt safe, and yes I would hurt but eventually I would be ok. Look forward to reading your book! So much of what you say resonates with what I believe.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      I’m glad you’re safe, and that you listened to your instincts. As you read the book, you may be interested to learn about the amazing gifts of fear!

  4. Nikki
    | Reply

    I was also abused as a kid and for so long I internalized the anger. Now having two kids of my own has brought up all of the repressed rage. My nervous system is almost always on edge and I’m triggered by the daily screaming and sibling fights. I am just beside myself and feeling like my worst nightmare could come true sometimes — that I’ll become my very sick mother. I get the idea that anger is a signal that a boundary needs to be honored or restored. But how about rage? I’m starting to consider meds at this point because my moods are impairing my ability to be a good parent. I have to remove myself several times a day to recollect myself. Anyway, the depth of the anger surprises me after being on the opposite end of the spectrum for so long. I love how you describe healthy free-flowing anger. There are parts of my life where I feel so confident about my boundaries that I feel no shame in saying “no” or needing to take care of myself in that arena. I just wonder how to get to that place when a current life situation is bringing up repressed anger from the past?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Nikki, yes, parenting does bring up childhood issues, and thanks for taking yourself away from the situation and not taking it out on the kids. Good job!

      If your moods are very unstable and you cycle into rage, you could actually be looking at depression — in some people rage and depression are linked. So it’s a good idea to talk to a counselor or your doctor here’s a post on depression that might be useful). You don’t have to tough it out alone. There is a lot of good help available. Also, most communities have parenting support groups and classes that can help you see that you’re not alone. Check with the YMCA, the YWCA, and the county Social Services department.

      There’s also a good book by Sharon Ellison called Taking the Power Struggle Out of Parenting that might really help address some of the fighting that’s happening between the kids. It teaches everyone how to set effective boundaries without constantly squabbling. Here is a page with a collection of stories about working with kids on setting boundaries:

      And here’s a page where you can hear audio excerpts of Sharon explaining her work and some examples of it in practice:

      Take care, and thanks for reaching out. You’re not alone, and there’s a lot of support available.

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